It’s gloomy, it’s overcast, it’s inauguration day. I gotta say, I’m sad. I watched on CNN as the Obamas left the White House for the last time, and it truly felt like the end of an era.
Not just because I have no idea what the next four years will bring, but because The Obamas were – are – iconic. Their poise, their elegance, their sheer presence set precedents, knocked stereotypes sideways and made a mockery of long held beliefs about black people’s capabilities and the so-called hidden underbelly of racism in this country. That underbelly, scaly, rough and distended, came to public, neon light once President Barack Obama ascended to the highest office in the land.
But through the slights and disrespect, the opportunists who joined his cabinet only for the springboard to other powerful, more financially lucrative roles, the relentless and rude questioning of his heritage, his background, his suitability and his intelligence, President Obama remained our leader. He remained a man of the people.
It reminds me of the first time I met him. Have I told you this one already? If so, allow me this indulgence today, hmmm? It is a great story.
When we met, President Obama was still a Senator and had not yet announced his presidential candidacy. I knew it was coming; I was dating a lobbyist for the Chicago Public School system at the time, and he told me. Anyway, we were at a wedding in Hyde Park – rather, we were milling around outside on the lawn after the ceremony – and my ex introduced me.
We shook hands and smiled, and then-Senator Obama asked me, “So, Kellye. What do you do?”
Now, I was unemployed at the time, but I answered, “I’m a writer.”
My ex said, “No, Kellye. He means what do you do for a living.”
We both looked at him. There was an awkward, terrible pause. Then Obama said, “Oh, you’re a writer. Did I tell you that I was the editor of the Harvard Law Review?” And he went right on talking as though that fool hadn’t said a word, as though he hadn’t embarrassed me in front of a man who would later become one of the most important figures in history.
Obama gave me back my dignity after someone carelessly snatched it away, and he did so effortlessly and immediately. It spoke volumes about his character and what kind of leader he would be. I knew then that I would vote for him. And I did, twice.
There were many times over the past eight years when life – well, it happened. And when it did, I felt a mélange of things: disgust, fear, excitement, traumatized, hopeful and engaged. But through it all there was a whisper at the back of my mind that said, in the midst of this hurt, this injustice, this disappointment and tragedy, what would President Obama do? The answer was clear. When life happens, when stress at work or in life threatens one’s peace, be graceful, prepared and steadfast under pressure.
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama made me a better person. I know I’m not alone when I say that the example they set was a very high bar, but it was one I enjoyed reaching and exceeding. They let the world know what I always knew: race and gender are descriptors, accidents of birth. They should not be clear cut signals for one’s future success.
Most minorities instinctively know this, but the pressure! The pressure the misinformed and ill-intentioned can put on you will wear you down so low, you’ll forget what you know. Doubts will creep in as enforced stereotypes and bias shape your existence in ways you didn’t agree to, but have no choice but to go along with.
The Obamas gave the country’s minority populations explicit permission to dismiss those stereotypes, to refuse to knuckle under to that bias – if not completely in workplace practice, at least in the privacy of our individual minds and hearts. I thank them for that. I thank them for setting such a lovely example for the world, and for all of us in it who needed that connection and similarity, that unwavering encouragement and audacious spirit of hope.
This morning I re-posted a list on Instagram titled The Obama Record. It featured some of the highlights from his presidency. Among them: longest streak of job growth on record, 11 million new jobs created, corporate profits up by 144 percent, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repealed, education and job opportunities for veterans, equal benefits for married gay couples, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
This is just a small sampling from the list, and I chose to repeat these because they speak most clearly to his efforts around diversity and inclusion and his aid to everyday employees and to the companies that employ them. President Obama cared about equality. He cared about equity, and he cared about the American workforce.
He will be greatly missed.